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Spectrum repack may leave rural TV viewers in the dark

Repacking television spectrum following the FCC’s incentive auction to free up more frequencies for more wireless broadband service will likely harm OTA TV viewers, particularly those in the western United States, where TV translators and low-power stations extend the reach of full-power stations across vast expanses of land and into areas where mountainous terrain impedes reception.

According to Byron St. Clair, an RF consultant and president of the National Translator Association, the translator industry is “very fearful” of the impact of the repack.

“We believe that under the best of circumstances, some service is going to be lost, and if it isn’t the best of circumstances, quite a lot of service will be lost in rural areas,” he says.

Although TV translators and low-power television stations are regarded as secondary services by the FCC for licensing purposes, they play a vital role in providing OTA television to small rural communities, families scattered across large tracts of farmland and even larger western cities.

St. Clair says there are some 5000 TV translators in operation across the United States. In states like Idaho, they play a significant role in transmitting public broadcasting to viewers, notes Andy Suk, VP Technology at Cordillera Communications, which owns 13 television stations operating in 11 mid-sized markets.

Suk, who lives in Idaho, says public broadcasters in the state have 47 TV translators to extend the reach of three or four primary stations, including those in Boise, Pocatello and Moscow.

“I have direct broadcast satellite, which limits me to the primary PBS channel,” he says. “Had I had a translator service, I not only would have that primary 4.1 channel, but I’d have four other PBS (multicast) channels coming up here with completely separate programming.”

According to St. Clair, TV translators have two major problems with the upcoming repack of television spectrum.

“First, we will probably not have as many channels to work with as we do now,” St. Clair says.

The other problem is even more troublesome. Many translator systems are four, five or even six channels wide at the first translator away from a major metropolitan area. Those channels are picked up farther and farther out by a series of translators that act as repeaters.

“Those channels were all very carefully and painstakingly chosen so they didn’t interfere with each other. If you change one input channel in that system, then that whole frequency scheme in that system can fall apart,” St. Clair says. “So we see very substantial ripple effects resulting from the repacking.”

Industry observers have noted that a repack of full-power and Class-A TV stations into a smaller swath of spectrum is complicated enough, given the legal requirement that the FCC make a best-effort attempt to replicate coverage with its post-repack table of allotments. Throwing TV translators and low-power stations into the mix would add such a degree of complexity that a repack would become virtually impossible, at least on the accelerated timetable the FCC is using.

“They (the FCC) have acted on the basis that all they can do — and indeed they will be lucky if they can do that — is accomplish the moves of the full-power and Class-A stations,” says St. Clair. “As far as translators and low-power stations are concerned, let the chips fall where they may.”

When Congress authorized the FCC to conduct an incentive auction and repack the TV spectrum in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (also known as the Spectrum Act), it made no provision for TV translators and low-power stations. At the time, some industry observers noted the language authorizing the FCC to conduct the incentive auction and TV spectrum repack would pit Big City interests where wireless broadband and cell phone service is crowded against rural America where OTA television continues to play an important role.

“There may be a need for more spectrum for wireless service in downtown New York,” Suk says. “But I’ve got to tell you, there’s a plethora of spectrum available in Montana. The problem in Montana is who wants to build it out. Nobody wants to pay the money to build that system out.”

Money isn’t just a key sticking point for the buildout of wireless broadband service out west, however. It is also central to making the changes that will be needed to the TV translator and low-power stations that remain on-air as a result of the repack. While St. Clair says many TV translators are owned by full-power stations, a substantial number are owned by cash-strapped counties, special taxing districts and towns with little to no money to make needed changes.

Although the Spectrum Act required the FCC to set up a fund to pay the expenses of full-power stations resulting from a repack, it made no provision to pay for the impact of the repack on TV translators and low-power stations. Depending upon individual technical circumstances, it will cost between $10,000 and $50,000 per TV translator to make the changes that would be required, St. Clair says.

“We have heard some people at the FCC say, ‘Maybe we ought to try to do something about helping translators cover their costs if changes are necessary.’ But it has all been very casual talk," St. Clair says. "Nothing has happened.”

In April at the 2013 NAB Show, Suk attended a press conference held by Harris to say a few words about the company’s Versio channel-in-a-box solution, which Cordillera Communications has deployed at KVOA-TV in Tucson, AZ, to put a multicast channel on the air. The obvious question for a broadcast group like Cordillera Communications, which relies on more than 150 TV translators in Montana alone to reach viewers, is: Why? Why invest in multicast channels when the very backbone of the system needed to reach a substantial portion of viewers in outlying areas is under such a threat?

In a telephone interview with Broadcast Engineering following the press conference, Suk put it this way: “The reality is that we are television broadcasters. That’s the business we have chosen to be in. We have chosen the markets we are in because we feel it’s a good business decision. We can make some money; we can provide a good service. And the only way we are going to make decent money is by providing a decent service to those communities. So we feel good about that, and we feel good about broadcasting in general.”